Film cameras are the last significant analog holdout in feature film and high end commercials production. Editing, special effects, coloring, compositing and audio have all found comfort zones inside digital boxes. Even projection and distribution are moving quickly in that direction. Through this digital migration, equipment operators have been hugely enabled. More and more production responsibilities have fallen into the digital realm as "we'll fix it in post" became a mantra. Some operators have even been elevated to artist status thanks to the creative options that come with new technology.
The introduction of professional grade HD cameras over the last few years means the digital age has finally found its way to high-end acquisition. The most apparent advantages to shooting in HD include filmlike quality, "instant dailies" by way of monitors on the shoot, cheap tape without built-in developing costs and the elimination of frequent magazine changes that can interrupt production flow.
For these reasons, HD's 24p flavor has been well accepted by the television community. Currently, a quarter of all television programs are shot in HD. And for the independent film community, an eventual low-cost 24p camera is the Holy Grail - bringing professional filmmaking to so many more people. Even Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, the ultimate indie film, was shot entirely in 24p.
But there are drawbacks. Initially, there was no overcranking feature, thus no slow-motion photography could be done in camera (Panasonic's latest camera currently has this function built in). Also, there is a limited supply of lenses (although this too is currently improving). Finally, some directors bristled at the image quality being too sharp when compared to film. Commercials directors haven't yet found a compelling reason to embrace the technology, however; when shooting :30s and :60s, HD doesn't facilitate any measurable cost savings over film. Instant dailies are nice, but not enough to warrant a change. And magazine swaps don't really bother commercials directors, who often capture mere seconds of film at a time.
To encourage these directors to use HD cameras, Young & Rubicam's managing partner/director of broadcast production, Ken Yagoda, presented Sony with a creative vision - invite commercials directors to make short films using the Sony 24p HD camera and show the results to the advertising community. The result was last year's "Dreams," a collection of eight four-minute shorts pulled together into a half-hour show that toured approximately 10 American cities and Cannes.
Directors, by and large, liked the quality and reported positive experiences with the camera. Many recognized the production advantages and faster workflow. But none were peeling the "You can have my 35mm camera when you pry it from my cold dead fingers" bumper sticker off the back of their cars.
The opportunity to make a short film with complete artistic freedom attracted many more directors to this year's "Dreams" event, titled "Joy" (the project retains the "Dreams" concept but chooses a different theme each year). Again, positive feedback came from the directors and DPs, and the films were excellent. But most directors whose first HD production experience came via a "Dreams" event haven't used the format since. "I love the process of loading the film, shooting it, developing it and printing it," says Melodie McDaniel of The Directors Bureau, whose film Enjoy parodied QVC-like television by placing beautiful women (all named Joy) for sale. "I like that control and that is one thing HD doesn't have."
"I really enjoyed the experience," says Bruce Dowad of Bruce Dowad Associates, whose film Buying Time helped pioneer the first "Dreams" event. "I could see the potential, but up to this point I haven't been presented with a situation that made me feel HD is the better way to go."
Yagoda understands that acceptance is a slow process. "One of the things about this creative exploratory is that it is also a technical exploratory," he says. "They learn to use the virtues in a particular way and eliminate the vices. The Will Vinton piece (Ananda, directed by Mike Smith) is the first time anyone did stop motion using HD. There are all sorts of cool discoveries happening and that's the thing I'm having the most fun with. The more sophisticated the director, the more ability they have not to accept a problem and to seek the solution."
Will Vinton Studios' Smith had an unusually tech-intensive experience with the camera - he directed the only animated piece submitted to either of the "Dreams" projects. "We used the camera constantly during the six- to seven-week schedule," Smith recalls. "It was all coming together so quickly that we had to make sure it was used broadly by everybody. I suppose what we went for was a very theatrical approach - you can see all the different techniques and how things are put together. But as you enter into the spirit of things, you just magically enjoy it as a film, and that's what we tried to aim for. I think everyone is so enamored by seeing every pore and every hair on HD, but we went for something a little imperfect."
Smith says the camera helped in some ways but hindered in others. "The actual process of using it is something everyone liked. It's quick, easy to use and you don't have any qualms about shooting all the time just to get what you're looking for. But when working with the puppets, we couldn't shoot frame by frame. Instead we had to shoot little by little. That meant that each time it shot something, it took a few seconds longer than it would have just clicking off a frame. It stalled the animator and took him three to four times longer than it would have taken with a film camera."
But for those directors shooting live action, there was not a significant change in the way they worked. "It felt like it was the same experience as working with a 35mm camera," says McDaniel. "We lit it like film and worked the same with wardrobe, the backgrounds and the talent." McDaniel challenged the medium by executing a soft retro look in the face of what is reputed to be a sharper format. "I am a big fan of the look of film from the '60s, '70s and '80s and I wanted to see if I could make this ultra-sharp format look like a vintage film. We ended up using real film lenses and diffusing the hell out of it with diffusion filters and soft-focus filters. It executed what we wanted and I was pleasantly surprised, but I would probably continue to use film."
If history is any indication, digital technology can be counted on to do one thing: improve. New software and better processing brings on new capabilities and better quality. Already, HD cameras from Sony, Panasonic and Thompson can simulate film stocks and control light and color in ways film cameras cannot. With each new camera incarnation comes more control and with each director comes new discoveries. For the commercials industry, "we haven't come across the killer app yet," says Yagoda. "We haven't had the magic moment from The Matrix. But it will come."